And so yet another year ends, and a new one begins. And at the instant when we exchange the old, crumpled calendar, crammed with activities once planned and now completed, for the freshly printed one, a map of a land yet to be discovered, we clink champagne glasses to toast the relentless, one-directional movement of time.
And even as we do so, somehow the momentousness of it all can remain impossible for us to grasp – except, perhaps, fleetingly. In an instant 2012 ends forever, and is succeeded by 2013, and for a few days or weeks the main thing is to remember to get the date right when you fill out a check. In the same way, once upon a time, 1776 ended. And 1492.
Somehow, dates seem more profound when they're dates from long ago, before we were born. Strangely, moreover, while the years we've actually lived through can often blend together in our minds, to become something of a mishmash, the years of History, with a capital H, seem fixed, sharp, crystalline. All of which can help blind us to the fact that the years we've lived through will also one day be history (provided, of course, we manage not to destroy ourselves as a species). We're living in history; we're making history – or, at least, history is being made around us, by our fellow human beings, whether or not we choose to take part.
We're living in history: it should be an obvious point. Yet in an age when so many people in the free, prosperous, and (supposedly) almost fully literate Western world are shockingly historyless – having little or no sense of what the world was like before they were born, and little or no understanding of how the world they live in came to be what it is, and, therefore, of how very much they owe to the past, and, thus, to the future – the point isn't necessarily obvious at all. Today, so many of us live in an eternal present, in which ancient history can mean nothing more or less than last week's Facebook postings.
A new year can bring unimagined, colossal changes. As 1914 dawned, how many people in the Western world imagined that a catastrophic World War would begin before the year was out, and would transform the Western mind in ways so profound that we're still struggling to understand them? Or, to move into our own times: as the year 2001 began, who could have imagined that it would become an infinitely more important turning point than 2000 itself, that long-anticipated, much-ballyhooed year when the digits on time's odometer (to borrow an image from John Updike) all changed at once?
Surely many Americans have far more of a sense of living in history than they would've had if 9/11 had never taken place. Some things that happen just burn a year into your mind forever, and that's that – and you can't do anything about it once it's happened. But what could have been done, and by whom, to keep 2001 from become what it became in the first place? No year's history is written in stone until it's over. As midnight crosses the International Date Line, the year 2012 will be history. But 2013 is a book yet to be written. The question is: who will write it?
In his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in 1915, T.S. Eliot wrote: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” Prufrock, the speaker of the poem, is aware – hyperaware, intensely and neurotically aware – that even his slightest action does indeed “disturb the universe,” and that every year, indeed every moment, he's lived through has, to some degree, however minuscule, been shaped by him. Some people never think this way about their lives, and, on the contrary, are eager to put their stamp on the world; a larger percentage, I suspect, are, like Prufrock, so fiercely conscious of the potential consequences of their every move that they can barely bring themselves to step out of their long-established comfort zones for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing – and of having to take responsibility for it. They prefer to keep their heads down, to keep their mouths shut, and to mind their business. In most premodern societies, and in many modern ones, such caution was certainly understandable – it was a survival mechanism, pure and simple.
In the twenty-first century, however, in a free country in peril of losing its freedom, such a posture, such a policy, is pusillanimous and unconscionable – unworthy of responsible adults, citizens, and parents. For the fact is that we face enemies who are determined not just to disturb but to destroy our Western world, our free societies, our way of life. Enemies who are intensely conscious of their own history, and of the violent history they share with us – a history that saw them turned back, but just barely, at the gates of Vienna in 1683, a victory without which I would not be sitting here writing this and you would not be reading it. Enemies who have no other goal than to write the history of the years to come, and to make the future their own. While too many of us slip passively into yet another year, waiting to see what it will bring us, those enemies are doing everything they can to usher us into a time in which all our calendars will count back not to A.D. 1 but to A.D. 622.
They're not shy. They're not timid. They're not Prufrocks. Yet so many people in the West hesitate to speak up, to act, to make even a small difference, in some cases for no better reason than that they're scared of being called bigots, racists, Islamophobes. (As if that, at this point, were anything more than a badge of honor.)
Given the present circumstances, turn the question around: “Do I dare / Not disturb the universe?” Observing the refusal of so many people in the West, especially those in positions of authority (and this includes many people from whom some of us would have expected much more) to take seriously the clear and present danger to our future, and to our children's and grandchildren's future, one can't help recalling a line from another great modern poet: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
As we pop the cork and count down to 2013, then, let's be aware that in the new year we'll continue to be engaged in a struggle – on a variety of fronts – against tenacious and unflinching jihadist adversaries who are already transforming the way we live and who look forward to a day when every aspect of our existence will be governed by their despotic laws. As we step into a year whose history has yet to be written, let's resolve that they won't be the ones to write it.
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